CONCERT REVIEW: Thrash Metal Titans ANTHRAX Celebrate 40 Years in the Garden State, Joined By EXODUS and BLACK LABEL SOCIETY for A True Metal Fest (January 31st, 2023)

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Nearing the midway point of their 25-date tour of North America, card-carrying members of heavy metal’s “The Big Four” continued their 40th Anniversary celebration at The Wellmont Theater, a historic music venue nestled in downtown Montclair, New Jersey this past Tuesday night, January 31. For their tour, Anthrax have teamed up with co-headliner Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society and special guest Exodus, metal thrashers from the Bay Area whose initial lineup in the late-1970s included Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and the only original member still with the band, drummer Tom Hunting.

Arriving more than an hour before the 5:30 PM doors on a brisk, 35-degree late afternoon, at least a hundred fans, many clad in black Anthrax gear from yesteryear, could already be seen wrapped around the corner of the venue. With tonight’s show completely sold-out, I was asked by at least five fans desperate to get inside if I had an extra ticket. Unfortunately, for them, I did not. As the sun commenced its descent over the Wellmont Arts Plaza, security personnel already at their respective posts, the legion of metal fans who had been patiently waiting were let into the warm confines of the 2,500 capacity theater’s lobby. Operated by Live Nation, The Wellmont Theater was originally constructed in 1922 and after undergoing a $3 million renovation in 2008, still features it’s proscenium arch surrounding the stage.

As the minutes ticked down before Exodus would take the stage, fans continued to hover around their favorite bands’ merch table or grabbed a drink from the array of bars strategically placed on each level. With a 6:30 pm start time, I was taken by surprise when the house lights suddenly went down and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” played over the PA system a few minutes early. Quickly rushing down the aisle to the pit area, I arrived just in time to see the quintet of Steve “Zetro” Souza (vocals), Gary Holt (guitar), Jack Gibson (bass), Lee Altus (guitar) and the aforementioned Hunting, walk onstage.

Their first album in more than eight years, and eleventh overall, Exodus are touring in support of “Persona Non Grata” (Nuclear Blast Records), released in November 2021. Like Anthrax, Exodus are also pioneers of the thrash metal scene that emerged in the 1980s and early-1990s and are also known to be part of the “second big four,” alongside Overkill, Testament and Death Angel.

Exodus’ repertoire of songs, which did not waiver from past shows on the current tour (as well as the set-lists of Black Label Society and Anthrax), comprised nine stellar offerings across five studio albums. With the band and the audience getting acquainted with one another during the first trio of songs, it was the introduction to “Blacklist” (“Tempo of the Damned,” 2004) when Souza reminded the rapidly growing general admission floor crowd of the mosh pit rules of etiquette. “I want to see it violent, but I wanna see everybody making it out. Make sure if someone wants to come over, [that]they get over safely. Because Montclair, better yet, because Jersey, we’re all in this f**king together!”

The second half of Exodus’ blistering set included one classic thrash anthem after another, three of which were taken from their debut studio album “Bonded by Blood”“Piranha,” (showcasing the eminent metal riff masterfully performed by Holt at breakneck speed), the title track from their 1985 release and “Strike of the Beast.” As the set neared its conclusion, Exodus gave us one of their best-known songs and a personal favorite (“The Toxic Waltz” from 1989’s “Fabulous Disaster”), featuring Gibson’s pounding bass and Souza’s gravelly voice that would have made Bon Scott proud. Before exiting the stage to another Queen song (“We Are the Champions”), two lucky young boys were lifted out of the audience and onto the stage to bid the crowd a good night and also to pose with Ukranian-born Altus and his white ESP guitar, while of course flashing the sign of the horns . . . with a little coaxing.

EXODUS Picture Gallery

As The Wellmont Theater reached near capacity with Anthrax fans and BLS chapter members continuing to file in from the cold and dark night, the “first to bleed, last to leave” road crew were completing the finishing touches to the stage behind the infamous Black Label Society banner. Reprising their role from last year as co-headliner with the thrash savants from New York, the almighty Black Label Society, like Exodus, is trekking across the U.S. in support of their acclaimed eleventh studio album “Doom Crew Inc.,”( eOne) released in November 2021.

Promptly at 7:45 PM, the house lights went down for a second time while the sounds of “Whole Lotta Sabbath,” a mashup of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, filled the theater. Next, the banner which shrouded the stage in secrecy finally dropped and the crowd erupted as front-man Wylde and his band-mates (guitarist Dario Lorina, bassist John “J.D.” DeServio and drummer Jeff Fabb) launched into “Funeral Bell” from their fourth studio album (“The Blessed Hellride”, 2003). Perched atop a riser at center stage, the virtuoso 6-stringer who formed Black Label Society in Los Angeles during the late-1990s resembled a Norse god with his long blonde mane and flowing beard, while adorned in his signature biker-style battle vest “kutte,” Scottish kilt and black biker boots.

The next quintet of songs included “The Beginning… At Last,” the lone offering from Black Label Society’s debut studio album “Sonic Brew” (1998), which was succeeded by 2021’s “Destroy & Conquer”, ”Destruction Overdrive”, “Heart of Darkness” (“Catacombs of the Black Vatican”, 2014) and “A Love Unreal” (“Grimmest Hits”, 2018).

However, it was the second half of the 1 hour, 15 minute set that shined brightest, commencing with “You Made Me Want to Live”, which displayed Wylde’s penchant for the blues scale that often features heavily in his guitar style. With Wylde taking a seat behind the keys at stage left, and after making a toast to the fans in attendance, the beautifully delivered power ballad “In This River” (“Mafia”, 2005) ensued – a song that although was written by Wylde before his close friend “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was shot and killed by a deranged fan while performing live with Damageplan in 2004, has since been dedicated to him and his brother, Vinnie Paul.

Backed by a gigantic wall of speaker cabinets, one highlight of Black Label Society’s 13-song set was an extended solo during “Fire It Up”, featuring a guitar duel between Wylde and Lorino (with each playing behind their own head, of course). But the song that sent the now capacity crowd into a fervor was another track from “Mafia,” “Suicide Messiah,” with the audience singing along to the chorus in unison, “Bow down, you chose your maker. He never gives, he’s always a taker. The electric burns that fuel the fire. It’s just your suicide messiah.”

BLACK LABEL SOCIETY Picture Gallery

At 9:40 PM, the moment we had all been waiting for was finally here! Across the massive white curtain draping the stage a video began to play which presented the testimonials of celebrities and fellow musicians who spoke to the four decade, far-reaching influence that Anthrax has made on the thrash metal genre. During this seven-plus minute long tribute, as I stood just outside of the photographer pit barricade, I was able to catch a glimpse of guitarist Scott Ian and drummer Charlie Benante through a partial opening at the side of the stage. Despite these metal veterans having performed more than 1,500 shows over the course of their illustrious music careers, it was an extremely cool moment to witness. The sheer joy and excitement on Ian’s face was palpable as he fist-bumped Benante, welcoming his drummer back behind the kit after he missed some recent shows having underwent an undisclosed minor procedure. As the video neared its conclusion, prompting the sold-out house to “scream for us,” only the silhouetted members of the band remained. Then, the curtain fell to the ground, and it was now officially game on!

With plenty of righteous material from which to choose, Anthrax’s set-list was chock-full of killer tracks. The first three songs of their 12-song set were comprised of the title track from 1987’s “Among the Living”, followed by “Caught in a Mosh” from the same third studio album, and then “Madhouse,” taken from their second studio album (“Spreading the Disease”) released in 1985. The next gem performed on what otherwise would have been a quiet weekday evening was introduced by Ian as follows:

Holy shit New Jersey! How the hell are you? It’s been way too long my friends since we’ve seen you. I think it’s been like five years since we played Jersey. Maybe I’m wrong, but goddamn, that’s way too long! Thank you for coming out tonight! I’m going to ask you my friends, New Jersey, do you f**king love thrash metal? I know you do because I walk onstage and I can see all your faces, every single one of you, and I can tell that all of you are “Metal . . . Thrashing . . . Mad!”

Next up was “Keep It in the Family” from Anthax’s fifth studio (Persistence of Time, 1990), followed by a hell-raising cover version of “Antisocial,” a song written in 1980 by the French hard rock band Trust. At the song’s conclusion, Ian addressed his fans a second time:

In case you didn’t know, we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary [lackluster cheer from the audience]. That’s it, for forty years, we get like a ‘woo.’ Goddamn New Jersey, that f**king sucked. And hear I am about to praise you motherf**kers and I got 800 people in the balcony sitting there like they’re watching The Real Housewives. This is a rock show mutherf**kers, you don’t sit down. Unless you can’t stand up, then you got an excuse. But that ain’t all of you! It’s f**king Tuesday and you’re already tired. Anyway, its our 40th f**king anniversary [audience explodes with cheers and applause]! Get me all mad, I gotta yell at you and shit. When we say New Jersey is home for us, even though we are from Queens and the Bronx, but without New Jersey, Anthrax is never happening.

The roof of the theater was torn off during “I Am the Law,” a noted fan favorite, with Joey Belladonna displaying his masterful range of vocal chops on this third of four songs total that would be taken from their 1987’s landmark record. Stellar representations from two more studio albums (2011’s “Worship Music” and 1993’s “Sound of White Noise”) ensued as the New York City natives bestowed upon us “In the End” and “Only” respectively, with thumping bass courtesy of Frank Bello and Jonathan Donais’ superb lead guitar riffing. After belting out their two well-known renditions of, Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” and Public Enemy’s iconic “Bring the Noise,” the night’s finale was a scorching performance of “Indians,” with Belladona donning a native war bonnets while running around like a madman while his cohorts finished tearing down the place, leaving the audience exhausted after so much adrenaline and headbanging.

By 10:50 PM, the band took their final bow, graciously saluted their fans and exited the stage to Rainbow’s “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll,” still under the sound thunderous cheering. The final show of this absolutely killer tour package through North America, will happen in Anaheim, California on February 19. If metal runs through your veins, do your utmost best and then some to get to one of the remaining tour dates, and you’ll witness one of the best nights of unadulterated metal you’d have in a very long time.

ANTHRAX Picture Gallery

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